speak chinese like a native

Reflections on learning Chinese

Posted by bodawei January 20, 2012 in the Group General Discussion .

I am approaching a milestone in learning Chinese – namely three years with ChinesePod in early February. 派对! During this three years, I have lived in China for two years and Australia for one, and I am about to move back to China after a six month break in Australia.

I have been an active poster and not a very dedicated student. I do the occasional easy lesson in full, I listen to three or four podcasts each week (QingWen is my only staple). I have been doing about four hours per week with a private tutor in both China and Australia.

It is time for some reflections, and I welcome comments.

I am not a linguist nor a language teacher so these reflections are those of a learner, no more.

A couple of preliminary comments: First, I believe that anyone can learn Chinese to a reasonably high level given sufficient motivation, appropriate tools, and sufficient time. I don’t think that age is a particularly significant barrier although as hearing capacity diminishes this makes any communication difficult. And as you approach the end of your life, time is also a factor!

I’m not sure that I am convinced by hot-housing (teaching children from a young age) – potentially this is the most successful approach because it mirrors the process of natural language acquisition. But if the child is forced to learn, and they are not motivated to ‘keep it up’, then starting learning young may be a waste of time and energy. I am speaking/singing to my new grand-child in Chinese but will probably give up when she tells me to shut-up.

Second, most learners I have met at ChinesePod are interested in ‘method’ – some exceedingly so. I think that method is possibly less important than either intensity or the location as predictors of success. My reasons … we can be obsessed with method and overlook the process of natural language acquisition. Also, language learning occurs using multiple methods – it is difficult to imagine making much progress without taking an eclectic approach.

The two dimensions I use to describe ‘learning Chinese’ – are (1) ‘intensity’ and (2) ‘location’ (the space in which Chinese is learnt – formal courses, on-line, and self-study.) I don’t discuss method, exactly, although ‘location’ could perhaps be construed as an aspect of method.

There are a number of intensities associated with learning:

1. High intensity

Learning is wholly integrated with other activities in your life. It is not a separate activity, like going to school or to formal classes. It is an all-day every day occupation.

Typical situation: Dedicated study with clear goals, and most likely one to three years of full-time study. Followed by several years living in a Chinese-speaking environment, using Chinese every day in your work and/or social life. Likely end-point (with a great deal of effort) ‘Advanced’.

2. Medium intensity

Learning takes up a significant part of your life.

Typical situation: some academic study, dedicated working through ChinesePod lessons, and perhaps long-term living in China using Chinese every day. You may want to use Chinese to further your business interests. Likely end-point Intermediate.

3. A ‘lite’ approach

Learning Chinese is something you want to do as a hobby or interest.

Typical situation: Learning Chinese is something that interests you because you love China, or the Chinese language, and you are willing to put a reasonable amount of time aside each week for this purpose. You might do casual classes for up to a year in China (maybe a few hours a week) and regular work on ChinesePod.  Likely end-point Elementary.


There are three different locations (or vehicles) – these can be used at each of the three levels of intensity referred to above:

1. University course, usually including an in-country component of full-time classes in a Chinese university. This is mainly a formal setting. The learner has little or no control over the space in which Chinese is learnt. There is a curriculum and testing at the end of the course.

2. ChinesePod or similar on-line resources. Chinese ‘on your terms’. Contrasts with #1 in the sense that the learner designs the program to some extent.

3. Self-study supplemented by time with a private tutor or small group classes. Contrasts with #1 in the sense that the learner has complete responsibility for design of the program.


Reflections on my experience:

I started at low-intensity – I was interested in something that might give me a ‘hobby’ (I was 52 when I did my first class.) At no time did I see it as something that might further my career, and I do not see it as a particular business goal. My intensity has gradually increased, and is now somewhere between medium and high.

I started with ‘community’ lessons, two hours per week. After about a year I decided to put more effort in. I enrolled in a formal course and completed an 18 months-long full-time Masters degree including 12 months full time in China, 8 months full-time study, 4 months travel. About a year and a half after that I started using ChinesePod to keep up my Chinese (apparently I paid my first subscription on 9 Feb 2009.)

As for ‘location’, I am probably gradually moving toward ‘self-study’, with four to six hours per week with a private tutor – although ChinesePod is an excellent source of high frequency language. And fun. I am thinking about doing HSK, because no fewer than two Chinese teachers have told me they think it is a waste of time and energy. :) 

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